I am American and have never had milk with tea. I take a little milk with my coffee for color but have never tried it (not once!) It is not to be taken with black tea. The English would be horrified.
Since the tea leaves were harvested, many bitter debates have been about the best way to drink and prepare the beverage. It may sound melodramatic, but the arguments were painful and protracted. People take tea very seriously. Before I began working in the tea business, I read an essay by Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, called “Tea,” in which he encouraged Americans to try loose-leaf tea. Adams also addressed the issue of milk. “Some will tell you to drink only a lemon slice with Earl Grey. They’re wrong. I like it better with milk. You should put some milk in the bottom of your cup before pouring the tea if you are sure you’ll like it. Pouring milk into hot tea will cause the milk to scald. You can add a lemon slice if you prefer. Pouring milk into tea is socially incorrect. Social correctness is not a thing that has ever had anything to do with logic, reason, or physics. In England, thinking or knowing about certain things is considered socially inappropriate. Keep this in mind when you visit.”
After working with Maya for about a year, one of my customers brought me a copy of “A Nice Cup of Tea” by George Orwell, describing his eleven “golden rules” of tea preparation. The tenth rule is the opposite of Adams’s regarding milk: “Tenthly,” says Orwell, “one should first pour tea into the glass.” It is a very controversial topic. There are two different schools of thought in almost every British family. My argument needs to be more apparent. The milk-first camp can make some intense arguments. The idea is that you can precisely control the amount by pouring the milk first and stirring while doing so. However, if you do it in the other direction, the milk will be too much.
You may not be aware of this fact: I’m a bookworm and a massive fan of literature. Douglas Adams is a personal hero of mine, and I hold George Orwell in the highest regard. Both men were English, and they both took their teas with milk. They both insisted upon it. Naturally, I should give it a go.
I brewed an English Breakfast strong this morning, I thought. I opened the refrigerator and searched for milk. The milk jug was pink, and I knew that Orwell and Adams wouldn’t like it if I used skim. However, neither Orwell nor Adams had specified what kind of milk to use in their instructions, so I conveniently forgot about their hypothetical objections.
I poured tea first and milk second. It is my instinct to agree with Adams’ milk-first argument. This defense makes sense to me, and it is a technique I have used to improve my coffee habits in the years following his essay. Orwell’s advice was taken to heart today when I made tea. I had never drunk milk with tea before, so I didn’t want to ruin it.
I didn’t know how much to put in. I added a small amount and stirred. I took a drink. “Does it look right?” I asked my boss Manish who was absorbed in an email on the other side of the room. He said, “Add a little bit more.” I did. I took a sip. “How about this?” He asked, looking at my glass of milk and the jug in my hand.
He asked, “What kind is that milk?” I turned the jug sideways to show him there was no label. He said, “That’s exactly your problem.” “It’s skim.” I was sure of it.
It’s all we have. I replied, “I think it will be fine …”.” I took another drink. The color is about right. The color is lighter than what I usually drink. This is about right. I drank another glass.
Is it better to drink tea alone? My opinion is no. Douglas Adams disagrees. George Orwell would call me ignorant. Manish would tell me I was wrong, even though he prefers plain tea. Despite the opinions of these tea connoisseurs, and their passionate arguments and ideas, I find comfort in this being just a simple experiment. Flawed? Certainly. But it’s interesting.
I take one more sip of English Breakfast-with-milk and then set the glass on the countertop. I grab my freshly brewed coffee with milky plumes settling on its surface. What more can you ask of an American girl than I am comfortable and natural?